Researchers have used a new approach to identify genes that lead to elevated risk for schizophrenia, which affects approximately 1% of the population.
The new method, known as a genome-wide association (GWA) study, compares the genomes of people with a particular disease to those without the disease. By identifying key differences between the two, one can generate hot leads as to which genes might be involved. The trick is identifying which genes are truly related, and which are not – a difficult task, to be sure.
This approach has become important for identifying the many genes thought to contribute small increases in risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and schizophrenia. Previously, these genes were difficult to track and identify using classic, family-based genetic discovery techniques.
At Northwestern, researchers in the NUgene project were recently funded by the National Institutes of Health to use the GWA approach to look for genes involved in diabetes and asthma.
There are practical concerns, though, with how this type of research finding might be used by doctors and their patients. Should genetic tests be ordered for conditions where the risk factors are small, or where treatment options may not exist? For many diseases, more informative risk factors are evident just by looking at one’s health record and family history. For example, risk factors for diabetes, including weight, lifestyle, and family history (the simplest genetic test), are straightforward to interpret and quite informative.
So while this news is exciting to researchers because it represents a start for unraveling the genetic contributions to schizophrenia, this is not likely to be information that will directly benefit a patient quite yet.